David Bruce: The Funniest People in Books — Language

Language

• Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond books, worked for British Naval Intelligence during World War II. Sometimes, he would take a captured German U-boat captain to lunch at his favorite London restaurant and attempt to become friendly in an effort to pick up some scraps of information not yet known to British Naval Intelligence. During one meal, the waiter overheard Mr. Fleming and his guest talking in German about shipping, so the waiter called Scotland Yard. Mr. Fleming and his guest were arrested, and it was some time before Mr. Fleming could convince Scotland Yard that he was not a German spy.

• During an oral test in Divinity, Oxford College, Oscar Wilde was asked to translate out loud a passage from the Greek New Testament. The passage described Christ’s Passion and Mr. Wilde translated quickly and fluently. After a number of verses, the Chairman of the Examination Committee told him he could stop, but Mr. Wilde said that he wanted to continue, saying, “Oh, do let me go on. I want to see how it finishes.”

• Mark Twain believed that vigorous cussing was one of the greatest joys of life; unfortunately, his wife, Livy, disagreed. One morning, Mr. Twain cut himself while shaving, so he vigorously shouted a long stream of cuss words. Livy, in an attempt to shock him, calmly repeated each word he had said. Mr. Twain smiled at his wife, then said, “You know the words, dear Livy, but you don’t know the tune.”

• In the first half of the 20th century, John Kieran, a New York Times sports columnist, was invited to a forum at an Ivy League university, where some of the students criticized Mr. Kieran’s school, Fordham, because it provided its graduates with what they considered a less-than-ideal classical education. Mr. Kieran responded by rising and speaking in defense of Fordham — in Latin.

• Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad that when he was in Paris, he fell into the trap of thinking that no one around him could speak English. He told a friend, “Dan, just look at this girl, how beautiful she is!” The “girl” turned to him and said, “I thank you more for the evident sincerity of the compliment, sir, than for the extraordinary publicity you have given to it!”

• Investigative reporter I.F. Stone was very interested in studying the Greek and Latin classics in the original languages. Once he was asked whether he would be able to communicate with Pericles, if the ancient Greek political leader should miraculously come back. “Sure,” Mr. Stone replied, “if he spoke Yiddish.”

• As a child growing up in Edwight, West Virginia, Mary Carter Smith used to compete in cussing contests. Because she was so good with language, she always won. As an adult, she put her love of language to a much more socially acceptable use as an African-American griot (storyteller).

• While in the apartment of poet and Latinist A.E. Housman, Cyril Clemens picked up a copy of an edition of the Roman poet Manilius. When he did so, several pages from the back of the book fell to the floor — obviously, Mr. Housman had made much use of this book.

• Dr. Samuel Johnson, the author of the first comprehensive English dictionary and thus a man who knew the definitions of words, apparently had bad personal hygiene habits. Once a woman told him, “You smell.” Dr. Johnson replied, “You smell; I stink.”

• Author Mordecai Richler tells a story about being in Barcelona in 1951, where he saw a Joel McCrea western movie which had been dubbed. In the movie, Mr. McCrea moseyed up to a bar in a Tombstone saloon and ordered, “Uno cognac, por favor.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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